Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Gun Runner can restore some normalcy to a crazy season

Champions and would-be champions have been disappointing at an alarming rate the past few months. Arrogate threw in the biggest clunker. Derby and Preakness winners Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing, respectively, came up wanting in the Jim Dandy last Saturday. Songbird has not returned to her dominant ways as a juvenile and 3-year-old. Drefong kissed off Mike Smith in the Pat O'Brien. In this atmosphere, Gun Runner will have every chance to improve his status in the Whitney on Saturday. But the way things have been going this year, it's caveat emptor.

The highest level of racing has become like the highest level of government: totally chaotic.

Horse of the Planet Arrogate decided to take the day off in his first start after seeming invincible in the three richest races in the world. If ever a horse were entitled to forgiveness for having one bad day, it's Arrogate.

But I was at Saratoga the day Lady's Secret suddenly decided she didn't want to race anymore and I was watching on TV when Life at Ten did the same thing in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Arrogate's San Diego Handicap looked eerily similar. He didn't just get beat, he didn't run at all.

Arrogate's latest workout convinced Bob Baffert that the old Arrogate is back but a workout is not a race. As I recall, Baffert was just as high on Arrogate's works going into the San Diego. We'll find out in the Pacific Classic.

Songbird has been like Madonna this season, still good but no longer indisputably No. 1. Stellar Wind has become her Lady Gaga.

Drefong decided last Saturday in his return to the races from last November's smashing win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint that he wants to be a solo act this year. He dumped his partner Mike Smith right after the start of the Pat O'Brien.

The 3-year-old division reminds me of a line from a Grade B movie of long ago, "The D.I," starring Jack "Dragnet" Webb, Playing a Marine drill instructor frustrated by the lack of cohesion of his latest squad of recruits, Webb's character barked, "You guys aren't even a mob. A mob has a leader."

In the wake of upsets in last weekend's JIm Dandy and Haskell, this year's crop of sophomores isn't even a mob. The five most recent important races for 3-year-olds have been won by five different horses, a pattern that also showed itself last spring.

The most encouraging aspect of last weekend was the emergence of Good Samaritan as possibly this season's Arrogate, a previously overlooked late season developer, who could wind up exceeding the stars of the Triple Crown trail
Good Samaritan was off radar screens because he had previously been exclusively a turf horse. Bill Mott explained that it wasn't because Good Samaritan seemed superior on grass. It was because the colt was crying out for distance and the best opportunities were in the infield. Mott said he and Good Samaritan's people were waiting for the right spot for his main track debut and it turned into quite a coming-out party.

Racing lives off precedence and there is a grand one for a young turf horse morphing into a dirt superstar--Cigar. The Travers will be a revealing indicator if Good Samaritan is on his way to that kind of career or whether he was just a one-race flash in the pan, who took advantage of the Jim Dandy falling apart in front of him.

Gun Runner, who jockey Florent Geroux says keeps getting better, can restore some normalcy to the older horse division and perhaps launch a campaign to overtake Arrogate in Saturday's Whitney. The No. 2 horse in the NTRA weekly poll and the No.3 in the Longines World Poll will have no excuses against a demonstrably inferior group of six opponents.

Then again, Arrogate loomed a layover in the San Diego and Songbird had to run her guts out to take the Delaware Handicap against a band of fillies with nothing approaching her credentials.

The most logical challenger to Gun Runner, Keen Ice, will be trying to win his second race in four weeks after winning only twice in 22 months. Significantly, his only two wins since his maiden-breaker have come over a mile and a quarter. The Whitney is a mile and an eighth. He's just as strong a proposition to hit the board as Gun Runner is to finish first but winning is another matter. It would take similar circumstances to the Jim Dandy, the race going to pieces in the stretch.

Keen Ice has tried Gun Runner in Dubai and the U.S. several times without success. However, he pulled Saratoga's biggest upset of this millennium, racing past American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, so he'll probably be only in the 3-1 range. Not a dime of my money will contribute to that.

Chilean Tu Brutus will take some action off the 118 Beyer--arguably the phoniest number in the history of the Figs-- he was given in the Excelsior when he finished second to Send It In.

War Story comes in off a win in the Brooklyn but he wasn't beating any Gun Runners that day. On the other hand, he's trained by miracle worker Jorge Navarro, who upset the Vanderbilt with El Deal last week. This was no surprise to regulars of Gulfstream and Monmouth, who are used to Navarro moving up horses like almost no one else.

Dean Reeves, owner of Canadian invader Breaking Lucky, who chased Gun Runner home in the Foster and Clark, summed up the situation. "I'm hoping that crazy things happen on Saturday."

That's what it will take.

Big day at Gulfstream

If you're at a simulcast site Saturday, you might want to pay some attention to the card at Gulfstream.

The first round of the 2017 Sire Stakes anchors the program. This series for Florida-breds produced Three Rules last year and champions Big Drama and Awesome Feather to name just a couple of important horses who have emerged in previous years.

Of more immediate importance. Gunnevera is scheduled to make his return to the races in a prep for the Travers. With the 3-year-old division in such disarray. the late running colt is not a horse to overlook, especially at a mile and a quarter.

Saratoga Springs, Aug. 3

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Saratoga Live is a Grade 1 telecast

Saratoga Live, which is available in 75 million homes every racing day at the Spa, should be the model for racing telecasts. It's fast paced and informative and never condescending or frivolous. The hosts know their stuff and communicate it well. This weekend the show will be all over the Jim Dandy showdown between Derby champion Always Dreaming and Preakness upsetter Cloud Computing and the Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth.

NYRA can be justifiably proud that it has managed to get “Saratoga Live” into 75 million American homes. But some perspective is needed. When I was writing about TV for three decades a point driven home repeatedly was content is king.

Being in a home is meaningless if nobody bothers to tune you in. Only about 10 programs in the cable/satellite universe of literally thousands of shows average as many as 1 million viewers. Many of these are on cable channels such as ESPN, USA, TBS and TNT, which are in about 100 million homes.

Fortunately, if any racing program is going to bring people to the set, “Saratoga Live” is it. In racing parlance it is Grade 1: informative, thorough, well paced and, most importantly, entertaining.

The talent also is Grade 1. Unlike some racing telecasts, the commentators delve into racing’s finer points without talking down to their audience. When they put up their suggested bets, you get the feeling they are also putting their money where their mouth is.

I didn’t get to see this season’s first two telecasts for the best of reasons. I was at the track betting the simulcast. This past Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, I monitored the show from beginning to end. In what might be a career first, I have almost nothing negative to say.

I made notes critiquing Gabby Gaudet for interviewing Mike Smith early in the Coaching Club American Oaks show and not bringing up Arrogate’s clunker at Del Mar the previous day. This was one of those occasions when I was glad I was gathering material for a column and not instant tweeting. The explanation became apparent shortly thereafter.

Gabby did her job, quizzing Smith about the Arrogate debacle in a portion of the interview that was being held to be shown just prior to the CCAO.

My first inclination was a half-dozen voices would be two or three too many but each of the commentators has a specific role and handles it without stepping on the others.

Greg Wolf and Paul Lo Duca are the nominal hosts and keep the show moving while also offering insights to upcoming races. Former Major League catcher Lo Duca took some heat unjustly because a lot of NYRA fans blamed him for the departure of Richard Migliore.

In any profession when someone suddenly quits “to spend more time with my family,” you can be sure there is a bigger story. This was reiterated when within days The Mig wound up on XBTV doing essentially what he was doing for NYRA.

There might be a nasty little man instrumental in The Mig leaving but it wasn’t Lo Duca. If he didn’t replace The Mig, someone else would have.

Gabby Gaudet and Maggie Wolfendale, who handle paddock and race track analysis, aren’t just the obligatory female voices. These two women know their stuff and how to communicate it. Sunday, Maggie pointed out that trainer Horacio de Paz is an up and comer, whose horses are worth giving second and third looks. She looked prescient as De Paz’s Ginger N Rye got home for a $24 mutuel.

After the feature, she questioned Smith, who rode favored Abel Tasman, about pinning down Elate on the rail sufficiently to have the stewards take a look. “It was old fashioned race-riding,” Smith acknowledged, the kind of candid revelation you don’t often get.

Gabby, who works the paddock show at Gulfstream during the winter, demonstrated her handicapping chops on Monday, nailing back-to-back exactas. She’s Ms. Versatility. She also sits in with Wolf and Lo Duca at the main desk and with Andy Serling for handicapping.

Serling’s normal partner is trainer Tom Amoss, who has the luxury of being a successful trainer when he’s not on TV. So he can speak his mind and dare to cross favorite son Serling. The two get into some heated discussions. After a flareup on Sunday, Amoss was missing Monday and Wednesday. Maybe he had responsibilities in his far-flung barns.

This is something to watch for in the coming days and weeks—just one more reason to pay attention to one of the best racing programs ever produced.

3YO’s start anew

Time to hit the reset button on the 3-year-old division. Through the first half of the year, the closest to a leader is Always Dreaming. All things being equal, the edge always goes to the Kentucky Derby champion.

However, even though Always Dreaming also has the Florida Derby on his credit sheet, things could not be more equal. Three different horses won Triple Crown races and several others have sufficient credentials to crash the party by putting together a string of wins during the second half of the season.

The shakeout could start this weekend. Always Dreaming and his conqueror in the Preakness, Cloud Computing, go at it again in the Jim Dandy in a Todd Pletcher-Chad Brown showdown.

On the Jersey Shore, Wood Memorial winner and Belmont runnerup Irish War Cry tries to get back into the championship mix in the Haskell against an accomplished group of challengers, some of whom also still have championship aspirations.

I’ll reiterate something I do every year at this time. It is absolutely insane that two races of this stature are contested within 24 hours. The Jim Dandy is pretty much locked in because of the compact Saratoga meeting, which culminates in the Travers. The Haskell could and should move to earlier in the Monmouth season, ideally around the Fourth of July. This would provide sufficient spacing from the Triple Crown races on one side and the Jim Dandy/Travers on the other.

I’m in Always Dreaming’s corner at the Spa. Taking nothing away from Cloud Computing, he had everything going for him in Baltimore. Brown skipped the Derby to have a fresh horse for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. He joked after Cloud Computing ran third in the Wood that not winning New York’s premier prep saved him some grief. If he had won, Brown quipped, it would have been difficult to tell Cloud Computing’s owners that the plan was to skip the Derby.

Cloud Computing didn’t beat the real Always Dreaming, the stellar colt I expect to show up Saturday. Always Dreaming had not finished behind a horse during his 3-year-old campaign, which coincided with a switch to the Pletcher program. At Pimlico, he finished behind seven horses. Obviously, this was the outlier.

Pletcher, who doesn’t prepare his horses to run back in two weeks, has had more than two months to get Always Dreaming right again.

The Jim Dandy has the bigger marquee names but the Haskell is the more intriguing and challenging betting race. In addition to Irish War Cry, McCraken, who was at the top of many lists this past spring, will line up as will a couple of Brown standouts , Dwyer winner Practical Joke and undefeated Timeline, and Girvin, the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winner.
Irish War Cry is the sentimental choice. His owner, Isabelle de Tomaso, is the daughter of Amory Haskell, Monmouth’s first president and the man for whom the race is named. Graham Motion said he doesn’t have to be told how much winning the race would mean to de Tomaso, who, for decades has presented the trophy to others.

My preference is for McCraken. Trainer Ian Wilkes is bringing McCraken to Monmouth for one reason and it’s not to duck Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing. “We’re not ducking anyone. The Haskell is a Grade 1 and it’s important that we win a Grade 1 with this horse.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Your first tip of the Saratoga season

Handicapping books and tout sheets abound at Saratoga. The one that stands out for me is the 'Saratoga Handicapper.' It doesn't attempt to pick winners but gives a player useful information about trainers' historical trends at the Spa, which can be used to come up with not-so-obvious winners and help eliminate heavily played horses who don't fall into a winning pattern. In another matter, it would be great if Songbird's connections give her the opportunity to do the one thing she hasn't done, which other great fillies have, take on the boys and beat them.

It’s horse players’ Christmas Eve. The day before the opening of Saratoga is one of the most joyful, anticipatory occasions of every year, superseded only by opening day itself. Forget sugar plums. Visions of great scores to come dance in players’ heads.

Some of the biggest hits I’ve had at the Spa have come as a result of a Christmas-in-July present I get for myself every year, "The Saratoga Handicapper." The magazine-sized publication put out by Jim Mazur isn’t a tout sheet. It’s an encyclopedia of information, the most useful tool to attack the Saratoga meeting I’ve ever encountered.

The front of the book contains three-year summaries of every trainer who has started a horse at the Spa, not just their overall record but how they fare in various categories: 2-year-olds, maidens, turf, etc.

Personally, I find the negative information to be as useful as the positive. It’s a great handicapping aid to know certain trainers haven’t won a race in three years or are one-for-a-hundred with first time starters. Many times this has helped me to toss horses getting solidly bet.

For example, Mark Henning, a fine trainer, seems to be cursed in upstate New York. Over the past six years, he’s a 6% trainer, 10-for-179, according to the book.

Even more revealing is Tom Albertrani’s past performances with 2-year-old maiden first-time starters. He’s a 9% trainer overall, a number that would jump well into double digits if he wasn’t zero-for-65 with debuting juveniles. Some of these have been well bet because of the classy stock Albertrani gets.

For those who prefer more than cold stats, subsequent pages include full profiles of the top trainers with angles that have been successful for them over the years. Some of the lower profile trainers, who have clicked with price horses at the Spa, have abbreviated bios.

Roy Lerman is a fine example. Lerman, who lives in the upstate area, points for the Spa. He doesn’t hit often. He’s four-for-58 in recent years, but when one of his horses does get home, it makes up for the draughts. His average win payoff is $43, so if you threw a deuce on every horse he sends out, you would have a handsome profit.

Linda Rice has established herself as the queen of the turf sprints. Because of this her horses in this category regularly get over bet. However, her reputation was established a few years when turf sprints were introduced and other barns weren’t as prepared for it as she was. She’s only 5-for-46 the past three years.

Rice is actually more effective in turf routes, where she is 10-for-59.

Mazur, who left a career in real estate to begin publishing handicapping aids, has built his company to more than a dozen covering various tracks and big events such as the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup. He has been putting out the "Saratoga Handicapper" for more than two decades.

The inspiration, he says, was the "Saratoga Scorecard," a publication he first noticed about 30 years ago when he was just a player. “I thought it was so helpful in handicapping that I decided to try to do something similar at Gulfstream in the winter.”

He didn’t want to rip off its creator, John Angelo, so he asked him if there would be any problem with a Gulfstream edition. “He told me, ‘knock yourself out,’” Mazur said with a laugh. The two became friends and remain so. When Angelo decided he wanted to cut back, Mazur convinced him to become a contributor to his publications. Angelo still contributes to the trainer profiles, Mazur said.

The books are especially useful for relatively contained meets, such as Gulfstream and Saratoga, because trainers from several venues show up each year and many seem to have the same methodology. Mazur points out in the profiles how some like to crack right out of the box at the start of the meeting while others prefer to give their horses a race over the track.

A tip he offers for the first few days of the Spa season is to be wary of horses coming off big efforts at Belmont. New York players get overly enthused about New York form, Mazur said. A more profitable angle would be to watch out for horses with decent credentials shipping in from lesser circuits.

But not every circuit, Mazur said. Not surprisingly, Finger Lakes shippers have a dreadful record at Saratoga. Horses coming up from Delaware used to fare poorly against the stronger Saratoga competition but with top trainers such as Graham Motion using the Fair Hills training center as their base, horses often have one in Wilmington, then come to Saratoga to get the money.

Over the years, Canadian shippers also have produced positive results, according to Mazur. The beauty of this, he said, is out-of-town horses often carry Beyers that don’t seem to measure up to the New Yorkers.

I’m not in the endorsement business and Mazur isn’t an advertiser on Horse Race Insider. This is merely one horse player telling others about a publication that has helped him find Saratoga winners over the years. I spend a week or two every summer in Las Vegas for an orgy of betting horses. I've come to know several regulars and the first question they ask when they see me is, "Did you bring the book?" There's no better testimonial than that.

Songbird's final challenge

Super filly Songbird hasn’t been as dazzling in her first two starts this season as she was as a juvenile and 3-year-old. Perhaps, as John Pricci speculated, her gut-wrenching Breeders’ Cup Distaff effort against Beholder emptied her tank.

Her next start reportedly will be in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar or Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Both are no-win scenarios. Songbird has done all anyone can ask against her own gender. If she wins, she’s supposed to. If not, her luster is tarnished. Besides, she has the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to ratify her gender superiority.

If Songbird is to be considered among the great distaffers of recent years, she must do the one thing she hasn’t attempted: take on the boys and beat them. Rachel Alexandra did it three times, including in the Preakness as a 3-year-old. Zenyatta did it. Havre de Grace did it. Personal Ensign did it. Lady’s Secret did it. Until Songbird does it, she cannot be in a conversation with those greats.

The Woodward Stakes on Sept. 2 is a prime opportunity. Gun Runner is targeting next weekend’s Whitney and might not run back that quickly with the Breeders’ Cup his ultimate goal. Beyond him there isn’t much. Connect is gone. Shaman Ghost showed his vulnerability when he couldn’t hold off Keen Ice.

The Woodward might be Songbird’s last best chance to show she is better than merely the standout of her gender. Her connections owe her the opportunity.

Miami, July 20, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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